Friday, August 02, 2013

Review - Life After Life

Sometimes I like to pair books with audiobooks the way other people pair wines with meals. I paired this with Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (on audio) and it was a lovely matching. Reincarnation that isn't quite reincarnation in both cases. Beautiful combination.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. 529 pages. Published in April 2013 by Reagan Arthur Books.

Bottom Line: I can not say enough good things about this book. It's a wonderful character based relationship drama, beautifully written with a fascinating plot device. Will appeal to fans of Kate Morton. Good choice for book clubs. Recommended for all libraries.
In 1910 Ursula Todd is born and dies due to a cord wrapped around her neck. But then again on that same night she is born and this time the doctor makes it to her house and she lives. So it goes throughout her life, she dies and the next time manages to change events. Vague memories of previous lives haunt her with a constant since of deja vu. But with a life that spans two wars, a depression, and a flu epidemic can she use this to change more than just her own fate and that of the ones she loves?

This is a seriously fantastic concept. I've never seen reincarnation approached in quite this way before (the closest perhaps is The Butterfly Effect but this is much better done). The reliving of lives leaves Ursula able to make different choices as she grows older and as such affect not only if she lives, but those around her. Of course her constant since of deja vu leads to its own problems.

The language Atkinson uses is beautiful, it is as repetitive and circular as is Ursula's life resulting in a melancholy, ethereal quality. Such revisits and repeats of scenes as we relive Ursula's life could be tiresome and redundant, but they aren't. With each return to a scene it is framed slightly differently and we learn something new about the characters. It's brilliant.

The setting is ideal for such a plot device. A girl who watches her father fight in one world war, the entire world set back by a flu epidemic, and then her brothers and friends fight in another world war is uniquely poised to do something if she has a pre-knowledge of history. England of the countryside and London are starkly rendered. I felt as cold and bone-weary as Ursula did as she searched bombed buildings for survivors during the Blitz.

And let's talk about the ending. (No spoilers, promise!) When you have a main character who constantly gets to relive her own life, it would be possible to never end your story and almost impossible to really end it. While everyone of the 529 pages are worth it, I did wonder how she would end it. And how she did still leaves you with a lot of questions, but also a lot of satisfaction. I chose to believe that each time she restarted and changed something she created a new parallel universe, but I read too much scifi. And thus we ended in the universe that the author wanted us to live in.

Please note this book is not scifi by any stretch of the imagination. I'm sure it gets classified as "women's lit" but I hate that term. I'm going with literary fiction because of how wonderfully written and carefully constructed it is. Just go read it.

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